Three Americans. Each jobless for more than six months. Each living now without extended unemployment benefits. That means taking out loans on 401(k) accounts, missing a mortgage payment, or wondering if they will soon face eviction.
By definition, they are looking for work. To them, the Obama recovery is a statistic wrapped in a rumor inside a mirage. Their pain is palpable.
"It's very nerve-wracking and I'm very anxious," Clarissa Garcia Jewett, 46, of Miramar, Fla., told me last week. "I really don't know where to go, because what little income we had coming in is gone. I don't know what we're going to do. You go from it being bad to being dire. What do I do? It's not from not wanting to find work. It's about not getting called back."
Jewett lost her job in May. She'd been a registered home-care nurse for 22 years. Her extended unemployment benefit was $275 a week. It covered her mortgage. Jewett's new husband, Jason, is permanently disabled as a result of a 2010 motorcycle accident and he receives a monthly disability payment of about $700. Jewett also receives $648 a month in child support from her first husband.
"I feel isolated and abandoned," Jewett told me. "I feel neglected. Some days I don't sleep at night. I wonder if we're going to have food to eat. I can't imagine that anybody in Congress or Senate can be looking at this thinking that I don't want to work or that any of us that are out here in this situation don't want to work. We're looking for work; we're just not getting it."
Jewett's still unemployed, finding no new prospects in the week since we spoke. Her husband had his third back surgery Wednesday.
Lynn Richards, 30, from Elgin, Ill., lost her job as a purchasing agent in April. Her husband works for the same company that laid her off. They have health insurance. Richards has a 14-year-old son and is expecting her second child in February. Her now-expired extended jobless benefits provided about $500 per week. I first spoke to Richards in late December, when she appeared in a piece for the CBS Evening News. She's still jobless now, her travails typical for the chronically unemployed.
"I received a few calls about applications I had filled out, but once they learned I was expecting in the beginning of February, they did not pan out," Richards told me. "One temp agency told me to call back after the baby is born to see what is available in early March. To keep afloat for this month and next, I had to take out a loan from my 401(k)."
As for her odyssey of joblessness, Richards questions everything. Even herself.
"It's hard on your self-esteem," she said. "You don't feel like you're contributing to society. It's very frustrating feeling essentially useless — that you don't have a job and you just can't find anything. It's scary."
A viewer who saw Richards in my CBS piece offered her food and cash. Richards turned it down, determined to make her way with her husband.
"There are people out there that are in greater need than I," Richards said, adding that the person who offered her assistance also runs a veterans' ministry. Richards asked him to give the food and money to the veterans.
I also have come to know Paul Hallasy, a 52-year-old Manhattan writer and actor who in June lost his job in educational publishing. By late December, Hallasy had seven job interviews and answered more than 500 want ads. He collected $375 a week in extended jobless benefits.
They expired two weeks ago.
"I have had a few leads in the last week, but no job offers as of yet," Hallasy told me, adding that he uses Twitter and Facebook to look for work and urge Congress to reinstate extended jobless benefits.
"I've been looking for work every day for the last six months," Hallasy said. "It's certainly not because I haven't been trying to get a job. I really want to work. But it just hasn't happened. I think that that's the reality for a lot of people."
I asked Hallasy how he interprets reports of economic growth and a lower national unemployment rate.
"I think that's actually not even true," Hallasy said. "In fact, I think that a lot of the reason why the unemployment rate has come down is because a lot of people have simply stopped looking for work — they've given up. It's true that the people at the very top of the income bracket are doing extremely well. But for the overwhelming majority of people, we're just struggling to stay in place and a lot of us are falling behind."
Jewett and Hallasy also agree on a question now before the Senate: Should Americans who receive Social Security disability benefits (because they can't work) also receive extended jobless benefits? Their answer is no. Both consider it unfair. Richards is sympathetic, fearing that anyone collecting both benefits — even if doing so is openly contradictory — is probably as economically distressed as she is.
A 2010 Government Accountability Office report found that 117,000 Americans collected Social Security disability benefits and unemployment-insurance benefits. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, has proposed banning this double-dipping to pay for a three-month extension of jobless benefits. GAO found that benefits paid in 2010 amounted to $856 million ($281 million in disability benefits and $575 million in jobless benefits). Portman's amendment seeks $5.4 billion in savings over 10 years.
Portman's not alone. President Obama's 2014 budget sought $1 billion in savings over 10 years by reducing disability and jobless-benefit double-dipping. This appears to be the place where serious negotiations — instead of mindless and heartless procedural snarling — could begin on a three-month extension of extended jobless benefits. Jewett, Hallasy, Richards, and 1.5 million Americans who have lost their extended jobless benefits deserve no less.
The author is National Journal correspondent-at-large and chief White House correspondent for CBS News. He is also a distinguished fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.